Average College GPA by Major – 2024
January 29, 2024
In most U.S. colleges, grade point average (GPA) is the ubiquitous measure of academic success. It summarizes, albeit in an imperfect way, the entirety of one’s academic performance in college. Employers and graduate programs often look to college GPAs for information on where applicants ranked in their graduating cohort. Given their significance, college GPAs have been the subject of intense scrutiny from educational researchers and the broader public. Many note how, for several reasons, the average college GPA varies greatly by type of school and major of study. Additionally, the long-running trend of grade inflation, conditioned by many changes in higher education, can be cause for alarm. Both average variability and grade inflation erode trust in GPAs as a universal measure of academic proficiency. In the journal, Educational Measurement, Donald Wittman recently argued that data supports privileging average and adjusted ranks over GPA as measures of college student success.
Despite this pressure, institutions seem unlikely to abandon GPAs anytime soon. Greater public awareness of how and why GPA averages fluctuate can be an easier solution to the problem. Additionally, students can use this information to provide more context for their GPAs in job interviews and grad school applications. Thus, this article provides an overview of how the average college GPA varies across school types, student demographics, and program majors.
How GPAs Work and the Universal Average College GPA
First, it might be useful to review the basics of how GPAs are measured. Colleges determine how letter grades and percentages should convert to grade point averages. Notably, unlike in many high schools, these grade points are not weighted according to course difficulty. Instead, they are weighted based on the number of credit hours obtained in each course. While colleges use their own somewhat idiosyncratic conversions, a 4.0 GPA is usually an A/A+. A 3.0 GPA translates most often to a B letter grade, a 2.0 to a C, and so on. Then, the cumulative grade point average is calculated by dividing the total grade points earned by the number of courses attempted.
An individual’s GPA is specific to their overall performance, even as they are frequently competing academically within individual classes. Thus, a student’s GPA contains almost no direct information about where they ranked relative to their classmates. Colleges sometimes, though not frequently, make average GPAs publicly available. Ascertaining the national average is even trickier. However, the National Center for Education Statistics published a report with data that helps establish a universal baseline. The NCES used data from a study focused on student financial aid, analyzing a nationally representative cohort of undergraduates. It tracked student performance in their first year of college study and their performance six years later. According to this report, the average college GPA for undergraduates in their first year was 2.8. The average after six years for the same cohort was also 2.8.
That average is much lower than what many colleges frequently advertise, perhaps because the diversity of postsecondary institutions it studied. Many employers are commonly known to look for candidates with a college GPA of 3.0 or higher. Based on this, many students will be aiming for GPAs well above that national baseline average.
Average College GPA Variation Across School Types and Student Demographics
It can be difficult to compare schools based on their average GPAs. This kind of data is rarely presented publicly in a way that allows for easy comparison. For instance, U.S. News and World Report rankings don’t list average GPAs for their ranked institutions. However, research on grade inflation can provide a glimpse into how average GPAs vary across types of schools. Independent researcher Stuart Rojstaczer has presented data from news and campus publications and internal university documents to study grade inflation. Rojstaczer shows that while grade inflation has been a nearly universal trend across institutions, it affects some more than others. More significantly, Rojstaczer’s data provides a snapshot of how average GPAs differ between elite, liberal arts, and public flagship colleges. Ivy League Universities self-report the highest average GPAs, with other privates reporting slightly lower averages. Meanwhile, public state schools record the lowest average GPAs.
There can be many ways to contextualize this difference in average GPA across types of schools. It is more than likely that internal institutional norms and procedures, which are difficult to observe, contribute to the variability. But it’s also worth thinking about the difference in student populations served by these different types of schools. Public colleges serve a greater share of ‘non-traditional’ students with dependents, first-generation students, and students with lower high school GPAs. According to the NCES’s nationally representative sample, each of these categories reported lower GPAs than other types of students. Students with parents who had a high school diploma or less had an average GPA three points lower than students with college-educated parents. Married students with dependents differed from dependent students by a whopping 7 grape points. And students with the lowest high school GPAs predictably lagged far behind students with the highest.
Average College GPA Variation Across School Types and Student Demographics (cont.)
Ivy League students typically attract students capable of high levels of academic achievement. Generally, by virtue of their background, these students were motivated to continue achieving at high levels. It’s ultimately worth considering how the pronounced differences in average GPA across types of postsecondary schools can be attributed to the differences in their students.
Average College GPA by Major of Study
It’s difficult to know with certainty how and why the average college GPA varies by major of study. Each school has unique standards and requirements within their degree programs, which makes universal assessment of differences by major difficult. However, experts seem to agree that GPAs tend to be higher in certain major programs and lower than in others. STEM majors especially have a reputation for lower average GPAs. Meanwhile, many (but not all) humanities and fine arts majors fall at the higher end of the GPA spectrum. This could be because grading is (somewhat correctly) viewed as more subjective in humanistic and arts disciplines. Instructors who have both little incentive to grade harshly and more power over subjectively determining grades will understandably assess students more favorably.
Further, as colleges have increasingly marketed themselves as degree and job readiness mills, disciplines that have less obvious ties to job market roles have seen lower enrollments. Inflated grades in these majors could be a response to depressed enrollments, attracting students with the promise of higher GPAs. Meanwhile, high enrollment can, in the case of STEM majors especially, mean higher competition for good grades. These broader trends help explain why some majors are reputed to be the hardest and others viewed as the easiest.
The table below relays data compiled by the University of California-Berkeley, which tracks GPA by major for each graduating class. It’s easy to notice the marked difference between STEM fields like applied math and humanities disciplines like comparative literature. However, it also shows the tremendous range in average GPA across majors. The data shows that average college GPA can’t be determined easily by class size or the STEM vs. humanities binary.
Average College GPA by Major of Study (cont.)
|Average College GPA / Number of Degree Recipients (2022-23)
|3.64 / 73
|3.45 / 265
|3.63 / 428
|3.48 / 68
|3.47 / 103
|3.75 / 26
|Dance and Performance Studies
|3.75 / 8
|3.64 / 240
|Environmental Econ and Policy
|3.43 / 101
|3.58 / 54
|3.54 / 112
|3.73 / 17
|Gender & Women’s Studies
|3.66 / 23
|3.69 / 105
|3.69 / 43
|3.49 / 98
|3.46 / 111
|3.56 / 418
|3.60 / 393
|3.51 / 294
The Berkeley data shows the immense variability of average college GPA across its majors, which can also vary over time. Furthermore, it’s important not to assume that students majoring in similar programs at different schools will yield similar GPAs. Thus, it’s important to look at the more local context of a specific college’s program average. This will provide a more reliable measure of individual performance relative to that individual’s competitors.
GPAs are a predictable source of anxiety for students and educators. They are also the locus of much concern among reform-minded researchers and policymakers. Some see grade inflation and GPA variability as eroding reliable information about academic performance. On a more hopeful note, recent research published by the Chronicle of Higher Education studies the links between grade inflation and matriculation rates. It showed that higher grades have the effect of increasing graduation rates. Many educators have long cast doubt on traditional grading as a reliable method for measuring and encouraging individual learning outcomes. Perhaps, this ‘crisis’ in average GPAs will lead to other, more productive methods of monitoring student progress.
Differences in average college GPA by type of school, student, and major follow fairly evident patterns. That said, categories like “Ivy League colleges” and “humanities majors” are dynamic, rarely consolidating around a stable average range. Thus, it is important to try to find information about average GPAs within specific schools and even specific programs. If students or employers want context for how GPAs stack up, they should aim for these more granular comparisons.
We hope you enjoyed our article on the average college GPA by major. You may also find the following blogs to be of interest:
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